HUNDREDS of school and college students from across Kerry and farther afield as well as other members of the general public travelled to Tralee this week to attend a major seminar on mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention at The Brandon Conference Centre on Sunday and Monday.
The Mental Wellness Exhibition, organised by the Be Aware Prevent Suicide Group, kicked off on Sunday and saw over thirty mental health and youth advocacy groups as well as a number of key-neote speakers address the predominantly young crowd on a range of issues from general health to mental health, depression and how to cope with and help prevent suicide.
Among the keynote speakers were former Munster Rugby star Alan Quinlan who spoke about his own battle with depression during a lengthy address on Sunday evening and young car crash survivor Galway man Shane Mullins who delivered an emotional speech on Monday afternoon about his fight against depression and alcohol following a devastating crash which nearly claimed his life when he was just 17.
Both days of the event were free and open to all though Monday's event was more school focussed with schools from across Kerry attending the exhibition. Though the subject matter was undeniably serious, organisers ensured the tone was kept as light as possible and this approach seemed to go down well with the visiting students.
"It's really interesting. There's a lot here and there's a lot of stalls and that from people none of us knew about before. It's enjoyable but I think everyone's learned a lot," said Tralee Mercy Mounthawk student Majella Shanahan.
"I think it's good to have things like this and they should really be on every year. It's important that people talk to each other about what's in their heads and to know there are people they can talk to said PLC student Claire Casey from Castleisland.
"I thought it was very good. It's been fun but they raised some really important issues. We met one girl at the LGBT stand and she told us some things about bullying that you'd generally never even think about," said Ruth Carey from Killarney Community College.
"They organised it really well and what really hit home is that we got to hear a lot of real stories from people who've gone though depression," said Vanessa McCarthy also from Killarney Community College.
Tralee student Chantelle Kinsella, who was helping out at the Open Arms Project stand, said events like the exhibition were vital if the issue of suicide is to be tackled successfully.
"We've had a lot of very positive feedback. Events like this are very important because it helps get the message out that people don't have to suffer in silence and that there are people out there, their own age, who can listen and help," she said.
While much of the focus of the event was on mental health, various groups were on hand to provide advice on other areas of importance for young people including sexuality, sexual health and the implications of pregnancy.
One striking stall was set up by Studica Ireland who, using Realityworks technology, provide teenagers with high tech dolls which exactly mimic the behaviour of a baby and are designed to give teenagers an idea of exactly what is entailed in caring for a newborn infant. As well as simulated healthy babies the stall also had models of babies born of mothers who had abused either drugs or alcohol during their pregnancy.
While the healthy baby simulators attracted much attention it was the unhealthy model infants the got the strongest response.
"These are a very good idea and think they should introduced in every school. They're really detailed and exact and I was shocked when I saw the difference between a healthy baby and how small and sick looking child born after drugs is," said Presentation Tralee student Alannah Wren.